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[405] Case Histories – Kate Atkinson

” Sylvia liked wandering the house at night—it was her own secret life that no one else knew about. It made her powerful, as if she could see their secrets too. ” (303)

My first venture at Atkinson will not be last, even though it’s just a plain good (not great) read. Case Histories deftly weaves three plot lines into one narrative. The story revolves around ex-cop Jackson Brodie, who plies his private investigative skills in modern-day Cambridge, England. He is called upon to investigate three cold cases from the past. Atkinson presents them in the first three chapters. The first involves the disappearance of a 2-year-old girl in 1970, who sleeps inside a tent in the backyard on a hot summer night and is never seen again. The second is a random, cold-blooded murder of an 18-year-old girl at her father’s law firm office in 1994. The last involves a young woman, who suffers from postpartum depression, suddenly goes berserk and kills her husband with an ax (like in Crime and Punishment). Her aunt wants to know the woman’s whereabouts after she was released from prison.

Theo had spent the last ten years of his life doing nothing but investigating in his daughter’s death. Was that the right thing to do or was it the crazy thing to do? The room was like something a psychopath might have kept . . . (106)

Case Histories sounds like a traditional whodunit mystery but its writing style is a welcome departure from convention. Atkinson leaps one perspective to another with such admirable grace and fluidity. As Brodie peels off the layers of secrets, Atkinson gives us a perplexing fourth case that involves the investigator’s own sister, who was raped and murdered on her way home from work in 1971. Brodie would relapse into his inner dialogue while Atkinson drops hints and clues. Often time two voices are driving the story forward. Brodie’s continuous battle with his ex-wife, who is taking his 8-year-old daughter to New Zealand, is also alluded to throughout the novel. All the trails of the cases are past cold, and on top of this, it appears that someone is trying to kill Brodie.

The cases in Case Histories echo a common theme of parenting. How to protect children from the caprice of perpetrators, of fate? Parents of the little girl who disappeared were hardly emotional. In the other case, the father idolizes his daughter and is protective of her to a fault. Ironically what he thinks is the safest place ends up where his daughter breathed her last breath. The woman who killed her husband derives very little or no pleasure from motherhood. Despite the occasional sense of humor that punctuates gruesome crime-scene description, the book can be dull and slow at times. To Atkinson’s credit, it’s good that she doesn’t spell everything out and tie up the bundle in a neat bow. However, one case is handled more clumsily than another. The child disappearance case should have been exploited more thoroughly, compared to the murder at the law office. Since I have reached my own conclusion correctly before the ending, I draws little satisfaction at the end. I appreciate more the idea about whether knowing the fate of a loved one is preferable to being aware of the death simply because it allows room for hope.

310 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


12 Responses

  1. I never managed to review this one because my feelings on it were so middling. As you write, I think it’s a good but not great read, and that some of the mysteries were treated sloppily. Dennis Lehane has become my guy for, for lack of a better phrase, literary mysteries; his style and his characterization are fantastic, but the mystery is always, always first. And while there were elements of Atkinson’s novel that I appreciated (like the father’s idolization of his daughter, and her dying because he gets her to work where he thinks she’ll be safest – god, how painful) they were pretty much buried by my (sometimes failed) effort to not fall asleep every time I opened the book.

    • I also enjoy reading Laura’s story the most. I appreciate the tenderness with which she portrays father-and-daughter relationship. It’s surely a painful irony that in successfully keeping her from all the dangerous adventures and stunts she enjoys doing, he’s bringing her to her death. I had to hold my breath and actually skimmed through that crime scene before I simply couldn’t bear.

  2. Looks like there is no where to run from fate, if there is such a thing as fate. Again, reading this review, I found that we are both victims and perpetrators.

    • I think the irony of fate is the central theme that ropes through the cases. Although I guessed correctly what happened to the little child who went missing in the yard, I was still in shock when the truth was finally revealed at the end.

  3. I remember really liking this book, although it was before blogging so I don’t have specific notes on it. I like Atkinson’s style…not your average mystery thriller.

    • Case Histories is my first Atkinson, and I honestly like her style better than the stories. I like how she weave together all three and blend into the private investigator’s personal story. I’m very much looking forward to reading her other works.

  4. I think I pretty much felt the same way about this one as you did… I definitely thought it was something you’d skim (otherwise you might nod off from boredom!) and I quickly got rid of my copy when I was finished with it. Such a shame because I really like Atkinson’s non-detective fiction.

    • There were the shiny moments. It turns out that what I enjoy the most is Brodie’s passing inner dialogue. I like how Atkinson drops the hints but keeps the cases inconclusive throughout the book. Sometimes it gets very intriguing but there’s moment of slowness. I need to look in on her other works.

  5. This is one of my favourite series — I didn’t notice any clumsy bits myself — and I can’t decide whether to gobble the newest additions or to “save them”.

  6. Atkinson is an acquired taste, I think. I’m a fan. Thanks for this review!

    Deborah/The Bookish Dame

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